Saturday, June 6, 2009
I have studied the D-Day Invasion since I was in grade school; in 2004 I prowled the entire US sector of Normandy, from the Utah and Omaha beaches to Ste Mere-Eglise, and paced out the locations of numerous engagements of the paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Divisions. I have read S.L.A. Marshall's, Cornelius Ryan's and Steve Ambrose's excellent volumes on the battle. To the best of my knowledge, nothing personalizes this terrible yet incredible single day of American history better than THE BEDFORD BOYS, by Alex Kershaw.
This is the story of A Company, 116th Infantry; the title comes from the fact that the tiny town of Bedford, Virginia lost 19 of its native sons in the first wave on Omaha Beach within the first minutes of the invasion. No other town in America suffered a greater one-day loss.
Mr. Kershaw's excellent work describes these men, their families, friends, sweethearts and wives. He has done an incredible job in piecing together what the individuals of A Company went through from the time they joined up, traveled to England, embarked upon the Operation Overlord invasion fleet and stepped out of their landing craft and into history.
The 116th Infantry Regiment suffered 314 casualties, including soldiers from A Company, which lost 96% of their men within the first 10 minutes of landing on Omaha Beach.
The men of A Company were packed aboard six Higgins boats, LCA’s. Two of the LCAs sank in the channel, hit by German artillery and mortar fire. Some of the men drowned, others were picked up by rescue craft.
When the ramps dropped on the remaining LCA's, deadly accurate German machinegun fire opened up and cut men literally in half. Many of those who survived the opening fusillade sank to the bottom under the weight of their gear; the landing craft had hit a sandbar. It is estimated that only one-third of A Company remained by the time B Company hit the beach.
I walked Omaha Beach, I looked up at those cliffs; the German fighting positions are still visible. I have studied maps and three-dimensional sand tables. To this day, I still can't imagine how they made it off that beach and over that sea wall.
Many of the men who landed at Omaha remain in France, at the American cemetery Colleville sur Mer. Many of the bodies were never found; they are listed in the Garden of the Missing.
We must honor them.